For Khmer Rouge survivors, justice has many meanings

Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Kup Aisha sits on her bed, her wrinkled hands folded over a flowing skirt. She has the TV on in the background, though she barely glances at it. Today, Aisha will walk into a courtroom on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, and stare into the faces of the people she holds responsible for her misery.

"I'm not at peace with the Khmer Rouge. They killed my family. Even my niece–they killed her. She was only six months old," Aisha said.

It marks the start of the war crimes trial against three former leaders of the notorious Khmer Rouge regime, whose policies resulted in the death of anywhere from 1.7 to 2.2 million people in the 1970s. 

What can the court bring to me? Can it bring back my sister?
— Youk Chhang

It's been more than three decades since the Khmer Rouge fell from power. But the nightmares still keep Aisha awake. Aisha is a Cham Muslim, a minority group here. The Chams faced particular persecution under the Khmer Rouge for their religious beliefs.

"One day they forced me to eat the meat of the pig," Aisha said, sobbing. "I can't do that because it's not allowed under Islam. I didn't want to do it. I tried to beg them. But they said, if I don't eat it, they'll take me to a new place to live."

It was a euphemism for execution. In less than four years, the Khmer Rouge wiped out one-quarter of Cambodia's population.

Aisha once thought she would never see the day when Khmer Rouge leaders would face justice. Still, she's only half convinced the United Nations-backed tribunal will bring her peace.

"The Khmer Rouge leaders are all old," she said. "They could die before the court can bring me justice."

But other Khmer Rouge victims have already given up on the court.

These dartboards feature photos of Ieng Sary, the former Khmer Rouge foreign minister, Ieng Thirith, the former social affairs minister who has been declared mentally unfit to stand trial, and former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger. They were created by Theary Seng, a Cambodian-American whose parents were killed by the regime.

'Zero substance' 

Theary Seng hurls darts at a giant photo of former Khmer Rouge head of state, Khieu Samphan – one of the three people on trial. The words "poetic justice" are pasted on the sides of her makeshift dartboard.

"I am getting my poetic justice on the face of Khieu Samphan, who I hold personally responsible for the deaths of my parents of my aunt and uncle, of two million other Cambodians," she said, throwing another dart.

They did so much damage to my family, but they just sit there without anything to worry about.
— Kup Aisha

"And since I'm not getting my justice in a court of law because the court of law has become a complete sham, I and other victims need to release our aggression and look for justice in other means."

Seng was recognized by the court as an official Khmer Rouge victim–with the right to be represented at tribunal hearings. But she's not participating in the trial — in protest, she said, of the court's failings.

The tribunal set a precedent by allowing victims to participate directly in the first Khmer Rouge trial. But there are so many victims in thiscase, that the court appointed a team of lawyers to represent the nearly 4,000 individual civil parties. Seng said the court has reneged on its promise to involve the victims.

"There are a lot of beautiful phrases that are thrown out there, with victims' reconciliation, national reconciliation, victims' participation, but zero substance," Seng said.

The court has also been criticized for its handling of two other cases still under investigation. Critics claim the court's investigating body botched the investigation because of pressure from a Cambodian government that opposes further tribunals.

Clair Duffy, a legal monitor with the Open Society Justice Initiative, said this has raised questions "about the independence of the court, huge fair trial questions, and huge questions about justice for victims of Khmer Rouge atrocities."

'Justice on our own terms'

Youk Chhang, who directs the Documentation Centre of Cambodia, whose archives form the foundation of the court's evidence, said the court does need reform. But he added that the concept of justice is different for every Cambodian – and that shouldn't negate the importance of putting the Khmer Rouge leaders on trial.

"What can the court bring to me? Can it bring back my sister? Can it bring back to me their life? Can you bring back justice at our own terms? Can it put all of them into a life sentence in prison? No. So what's in it? It's a process. We have to take back the history. We have to take charge of our own life history," Chhang said.

At the end of the first day of the proceedings, Kup Aisha stood outside the courtroom. She said she tried to look into the eyes of the Khmer Rouge leaders on trial.

"When I looked at their faces, I felt so much anger. If I was a man, or a stronger person, maybe I would have tried to hit them," she said.

"They did so much damage to my family, but they just sit there without anything to worry about," she said. "It didn't feel good to see them."


This story first aired on PRI's The World.